You used to have to enter the Marquis Theatre, that abattoir of an auditorium inside the Marriott Marquis hotel, via a series of Plexiglas-encased escalators and cattle chutes that primed you for a terrible fate. Some of my worst Broadway theatergoing experiences have taken place there; need I say more than that it seems to be Frank Wildhorn’s hall of choice? Of course, there was, in 2006, that sublime silliness, The Drowsy Chaperone. But of late, and even after a 2014 renovation that improved matters somewhat, New York’s most Vegaslike venue has mostly been home to bizarre intruders from other entertainment genres. Its two most recent tenants were Il Divo — A Musical Affair, featuring one more tenor than the usually sufficient three, and The Illusionists — Witness the Impossible, featuring seven more magicians than the usually sufficient none.
So I was not expecting much from Penn & Teller on Broadway, the second Broadway offering from Penn Jillette (the tall one) and Raymond Teller (the silent one, who rarely uses his first name). I had not seen the pair live since their downtown days in the early 1980s. Back then, they were anti-hucksters, demystifying the hokum of magic acts while turning their own into a kind of avant-garde performance art. (You could call them the Disillusionists.) Since then, I knew, they had gone somewhat mainstream, appearing frequently on television, touring widely in bigger and bigger houses, and, since 2001, taking up residence at the Rio Hotel and Casino, in Paradise, Nevada. I feared that in the process they might have become part of the tradition they had once undermined, or just another bloated entertainment entity renting a Broadway house for six weeks to burnish the brand before returning to the desert.
But no, Penn & Teller are still, in the best sense, up to their old tricks. In fact, their Broadway playlist consists mostly of highlights from previous shows. Some, the more “poetic” illusions, are naturally Teller’s specialties, performed solo (or with an audience volunteer) and in silence. In “Shadows,” he cuts at the projected silhouette of a rose with scissors, but the leaves of the real rose fall off. In “East Indian Needle Mystery,” a version of a Houdini classic, he appears to swallow 50 needles and a length of thread, then produce the thread from his mouth with the needles now strung on it like tinsel. His variation on the classic “Miser’s Dream” — the pulling-coins-out-of-thin-air illusion — involves live goldfish. And in the especially lovely “Invisible Thread,” he coaxes a red balloon to do tricks, such as creeping toward him from a distance and jumping through a hoop. Penn blusters onstage to end the trick by cutting the filament that makes it possible.
That’s Penn’s role in general; in part because of his size, and of course the fact that he speaks, he’s the barker to Teller’s nebbish, the Hardy to his Laurel. The classics that are more recognizably Penn-like often involve both dread and debunking, and the odd fact that the latter does not diminish the former. In his version of sawing a lovely assistant in half, he demonstrates the workings of the trick apparatus, including the fail-safe that prevents a giant circular saw from getting near Georgie Bernasek’s body. (When the fail-safe nevertheless fails, we get a comically grisly denouement.) In a tribute to freak shows, he explains in great detail why fire-eating is not a trick but a stunt, then makes it beautiful anyway. The sense of danger the audience feels as he fires a pneumatic nail gun at his hand is mostly the product of the spiel he delivers while doing it; in fact, the gun won’t fire into a soft surface. Eventually you come to realize that his tricks are mostly spiel, which is a fascinating theatrical notion, even if the spiels occasionally sound a bit overrehearsed and are laced with diatribes against flimflammery that seem a bit disingenuous at this point. (Has anyone heard of, let alone been fooled by, Uri Geller in this century?) A detour into a denunciation of the TSA — an airport scanner is brought onstage for a demonstration of its essential uselessness — comes across as petulant in an otherwise purely comic evening. He and Teller, both libertarians, may be usefully skeptical about conspiracies and pseudoscience, but are perhaps less usefully so about gun-control laws.
Still, good for them: Their act is not so frozen as to prevent the emergence of real issues and personality. On the other hand, some of their newer tricks are not, or not yet, as solid as the older ones. “I’m a Little Teapot,” in which Penn appears to levitate Teller, tipping him over so that tea comes pouring from one sleeve, is adorable but sloppy; “One-Minute Egg,” in which Teller reconstitutes an egg after cracking it apart, doesn’t quite pay off (despite live video projections) in the 1,600-seat barn; and a bit that’s built up as the climax of the show — in which Penn vanishes an “African Spotted Pygmy Elephant” (actually a cow with a prosthetic trunk) — fizzles. This last bit is more of an inside dig at Vegas magician Criss Angel, the epitome of the kind of hocus-pocus and false spectacle that Penn and Teller despise. In moments like this, you can feel like you’re eavesdropping on someone else’s argument.
Mostly, though, they keep the tone light and fun. Who doesn’t want to see a 10-year-old from the audience wowed by a variation on a simple knot trick? In that regard, their very newest illusion, even if it’s also among the oldest in the playbook, is also one of their best. After pulling a false rabbit out of a top hat to show how it used to be done, Teller manages to pull out a real one. Or does he? Penn is so suave with the misdirection you’re not sure what you’ve seen. In any case, pulling a rabbit out of a hat is certainly what they’ve done with their Broadway return, because something that looks pretty alive is all but jumping out of the formerly moribund Marquis.